Renowned political scientist shares his insights on ‘legal corruption’

Posted 4th September 2019

CMU Australia hosted Professor Michael Johnston for a Distinguished Lecture on “Gaming the system: legal corruption in action” in the public and private sectors.

Professor Johnston, a leading global authority on corruption and reform, told how the challenges of dealing with ‘legal corruption’ are exacerbated by the difficulty of defining corruption and identifying corrupt actions.

“Is there such a thing as legal corruption? Or is that like talking about a square circle?”, said Professor Johnston.

“Generally speaking, the debate on ‘legal corruption’ is focused on what constitutes a corrupt action and how you distinguish between an act that is corrupt and an act that isn’t.

“Corrupt acts can be defended as part of the culture, in the public interest or being technically within the law”, he explained.

“But the systemic dilemma of the distribution of wealth and power transcends as an issue the question of ‘is this action actually corrupt’”.

For Professor Johnston the real question, and issue, is what can we do about it, and what can we do to take on the ‘haves’ where there is an unjustifiable dis-empowerment.

Prof. Michael Johnston during his public lecture at CMU Australia

“All citizens are supposed to have a voice in decisions and processes that affect them, but the opposers’ voices are being drowned-out and silenced by powerful political money and networks”.

Professor Johnston advocates for a deep democratization process whereby citizens can oppose corruption and exploitation by political means in ways that can’t be ignored.

“Such a system gives citizens the support to speak out, to challenge and drive changes”.

He said, “the root is not to appeal to citizens to be good, the root is to enable citizens to express their interests and defend themselves”.

“The reform agenda isn’t just about political administration improvements but giving those improvements a lasting political foundation, a lasting social support to make them effective.

“Most countries already have anti-corruption laws on their books, but they aren’t enforced. Citizens need to be empowered advocates not for civic virtue but for themselves.

“We need to give citizens an entrée into a process through which policy can be made and the common good can be pursued”, he concluded.

Professor Johnston was joined by The Hon Bruce Lander, QC, SA’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Professor Adam Graycar, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Adelaide, and Dr Adam Masters, Executive Director of the Transnational Research Institute on Corruption at Australian National University for a panel discussion at the conclusion of the lecture.